How to Open the Heart with Cacao Through Intentional Practice

written by
Michelle Estevez

Artwork by

Benju Pan

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Not only has cacao vaporized my morning coffee routine, but it has also added a rich layer to the way I lead my life as a ceremony. Where the mainstream views coffee as a quick beverage to start the day, I always felt it as an opportunity to sit and awaken the senses. The slow inhalation of a rising steam and grounding sip always brought me so much joy. This morning ritual was very intentional. However, when I started to set coffee aside and bring cacao in more regularly, I began to deepen my relationship to the medicine and direct it straight to the heart. It’s been a fueling ally to my creative endeavors and personal reflections that I can’t help but to share with you.

For centuries, cacao has been revered as a natural medicinal healer, used in ceremonial settings, and treasured by ancient royalty. There is a strong history behind this plant and its uses. This is especially true and relevant in the modern-day where ceremonial gatherings are still held and the songs and traditions are still alive. In a time of radical transition, returning to the heart is where the healing begins. Intentional work with cacao is a great place to start and turn within. 

What is cacao?

Cacao is grown from the Theobroma cacao tree and has historically been known as the “food of the gods.” The fruit grows in a pod-like shape reaching the size of a football, where seeds are found inside. It is from the seed where a new tree can be planted or where a variety of powders, pastes, butters, and chocolates can be gathered. In my practice, I work with cacao paste to craft a delicious and nourishing beverage, which I’ll discuss toward the end. 

Originally native to the upper Amazonian region (Brazil, Columbia, Peru), due to its growing demand, cacao can is also grown in dozens of other areas around the globe, including the Caribbean and parts of Africa. While this makes access to the fruit readily available worldwide, it also comes with a reminder to be mindful when sourcing your batch, the conditions of the farm, and how farmers are treated. 

Remember, this plant offers so much unconditional love, and the best we can do is approach it with integrity and respect. 

History and mythology


Before I go a bit deeper into the healing properties of cacao, I must share a little bit of the background behind how our ancestors and the ancients worked with this delicious plant. In 1866, Nestle was founded and redefined how chocolate was used throughout history. How the modern world relates to this plant is entirely different than how our ancestors approached this medicine. Where chocolate is often seen as a treat and often indulged with little to no intention, the cacao plant was a means of honoring the gods and living in prayer. There is a rich history within Aztec and Mayan culture documenting how this medicine was worked with. It is also noted after 2012, a shift in how the global community approaches this medicine returned the roots of traditional practice and ceremony.

Although I have been working with cacao more frequently for the past two years, it wasn’t until my recent trip to Mexico that I learned about some of the historical traditions and practices. For example, off the coast of Cancun, there is a lovely island called Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) associated with the Mayan goddess Ix’chel. There is a lot of fertility and rich history surrounding this island, but one thing that really stuck out to me was the way cacao was used during childbirth. Women would drink cacao and give birth in pleasure due to the medicine’s effects on the brain, blood, and heart. 

Other tales tell of cacao beans as a mode of currency where one could purchase meat or buy a slave. But, most importantly, it was considered to be a beverage of divinity and connection to the gods. Important symbols tied to the cacao bean include the macaw bird, Mayan culture, Aztec culture, blood, death, and rebirth. 

Cacao healing properties


From personal experience, the healing properties of cacao are felt at both physical and energetic levels. When I sit with an intentionally made cacao beverage, I feel layers of my energetic heart cleanse and open, and clarity wash over my mind for a strengthened awareness. I’ll share more about creating a sacred space and cultivating a cacao practice in the next section. 

While historical rituals and personal practice speak to the medicinal properties, scientific research also shows cacao’s many benefits, including heart health. If you think about the mainstream approach toward chocolate, many associations can be made. There is even an entire holiday dedicated to it, rightfully so. Love is a central component of the cacao plant, and the heart is directly tied to this. Working with cacao on a frequent basis can improve the circulatory system, which is responsible for transporting nutrients to every cell in the body. When the body has a healthy blood flow, all other organs benefit from this, including the heart, brain, and immune system. 

Other health benefits include supporting a healthy gut, supporting neurological function, reducing anxiety, and healthy psychological function.

How do you work with ceremonial cacao?

I’ll repeat cacao is a sacred medicine and must be approached with humility, integrity, and pure intention. Ceremonial cacao is not the same as drinking hot chocolate from Starbucks, so be sure to check in with yourself to ensure you have the space and capacity to hold this medicine the way it deserves. This doesn’t always mean you need to sit in a three hour ceremony, but it definitely is a guide to not drink cacao anxiously as you commute to work or get things done on your laptop. 

Some options for working with ceremonial cacao can include setting up a space with beautiful offerings like flowers and candles. Perhaps you might even have your art supplies nearby or a couple of instruments to channel creative and healing energy as the medicine moves through you. Sitting with cacao is a heart-opening experience that can be done alone, with a partner, or in the community. I believe the richest healing takes place with others. However, I also think it is important to create our own magnificent spaces for devotional work. Another option is to play music that speaks to you and inspires you to sing or dance. These are just some of my experiences, and the best tip I can give is to do what your highest heart feels called to do. 

Once you have your space set up, gather your ingredients to make your beverage. You can purchase ceremonial grade cacao through various online outlets as well as local distributors. If you’re fortunate enough, you might even come across a cacao fruit at the farmers market to cut up and enjoy yourself. Regardless, be conscientious enough to trust where the cacao comes from, ensuring it is ethically sourced and fairly distributed. 

How to make ceremonial grade cacao

If you’re feeling called to working with cacao and deepening your relationship with your heart, give this recipe a try. It’s my personal approach, and I must say, it is quite delicious.

Begin with ¾ cup of water and heat over the stovetop on medium to low heat. 

Note: Be sure to keep it at a low temperature. You don’t want to boil the water, or it will be too hot and cook essential minerals and vitamins out of the cacao. 

Take one to two tablespoons of your choice of cacao paste and add it to the water. Stir it in with intention activated through your voice. You can also sing to the medicine and share gratitude for having access to it and all that the medicine brings. 

This next part is optional. You can leave your cacao as is or add a few spices. I prefer to add a pinch of salt, authentic vanilla extract, cinnamon, and agave. I don’t measure this out but instead, add it by the eye. A little goes a long way. Other recipes might suggest adding cardamom or a dash of cayenne. Again, this is something you can experiment with as you find what works best for you. 

Sometimes I pour it directly into my cup this way, while other times I like to blend it to add a frothy layer. This is also up to you! Once you have your beverage in your mug, sit with it, smell its aroma, and breathe into your body. You might wish to speak your intentions out loud again or repeat them to yourself. Then, when you feel ready, take your first sip and sink into the sensations. 

This can be as decadent as you choose and a means to deepen your prayer and celebrate yourself. Perhaps I’ll share more on intention setting and ceremonial practices with cacao in an upcoming article. But, for now, notice how the medicine works through you. Does it inspire a new song or painting? Perhaps it might create space for a release in tears or laughter. Whatever comes up for you, remember to take it in and surrender. You deserve all of the healing and joy this medicine has to offer.

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Michelle Estevez

Writer | Contributor

Benju Pan

Artist

Benju Pan grew up in Neverland and never left Neverland. You might see him around in your dreams and imagination. And you’ll feel his presence when you listen to your heart.

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